Insisting on a Place at the Table for Everyone

Ethiopian food

If you’ve never had Ethiopian food, the first time can be challenging. The food can seem unfamiliar and strange. It can be spicy, raw, bland, mushy, crunchy. You tear off the injera (spongy bread) and eat with your hands. You share one big plate with your companions. You will probably ask questions about what is what, and watch how others eat. You might need some translation (see the photo above); it would be great if you learned some Amharic words. You dive in, hoping to be polite and to enjoy the experience.

The joys and challenges of Ethiopian food for us ferenjis (the Amharic word for foreigners) made me wonder if there was a correlation with improving services to children in Ethiopia, whether through adoption or otherwise. (I think about metaphors a lot lol, and mix them wildly sometimes–such an English major.)

I recently posted about several significant challenges in Ethiopian adoption issues. The main points were the rise and fall of number of children being adopted to the US, the approximately $330 million that has been paid for those adoptions since 1999, the impact of Facebook groups, the instantaneous sharing of bad news about Ethiopian adoptions gone wrong, a new film and new book related to Ethiopian adoptions, and the increasing awareness of cultural understandings of adoption.

Big, complicated stuff.

I heard back from a lot of people (thank you!). I’m diving today into something that’s crunchy and fearsome: how to begin to address the huge challenges in Ethiopian adoptions.

One reader asked : What can we do to get the adoption service providers (ASPs, which can include home study agencies and placement agencies) and adoption lobbyists to listen to all the damage that’s been done, and get them to change? Good question.

Ok, put the berbere spices on the table. Chop the vegetables. Turn up the heat.

Keep talking and telling stories. Do not underestimate the power of effective stories in bringing about change.

“Stories” means candid, honest narratives. They are very powerful.

My 3-placemat strategy for effectiveness:

Who should do the talking? Adoptive parents, yes. Speaking only from my experience, perspectives change as children grow up and one has decades of parenting under one’s belt. I am not dismissing the valid and valuable experiences of parents of young children–keep speaking out. I wish, though, that more “seasoned” adoptive parents would share their stories as well.

That said, I encourage Ethiopian adoptees to speak up and share their stories, positive and negative. The adoptee community award for Most Vocal currently would probably go to Korean adopted adults: they are the oldest, largest group of international adoptees, and are leading the way in terms of activism, networking, socializing, lobbying. Look at their models and learn: no need to reinvent that particular wheel.

Unlike most other international adoptions, Ethiopian adoptions are increasingly “open,” inadvertently or purposely. Adoption agencies have had birth families and adoptive families meet at the time of placement. Adoptive parents have done their own searches, found birth families, and connected with them, via occasional letters or routine visits to Ethiopia. Adoptees themselves have searched and reunited with Ethiopian family members by traveling to Ethiopia or using Facebook and Google.  Older child adoptions have often meant that the children themselves, while in the US, talk with birth family regularly in Amharic or Tigrinya or Oromiffa.

As a result of these increased and open connections, both adoptive parents and Ethiopian adoptees can be the key ingredients to providing Ethiopian birth/first parents with a seat at the table, to tell their stories and to be seen. 

In all adoptions, birth/first families are usually the most marginalized. They are usually the weakest economically. Poor people have the least power in any society.

We adoptive parents have a tremendous responsibility to care for children who were placed with us, to know the truth behind the reasons for placement as best possible, and to share that truth with our children. I recognize the need for privacy and confidentiality. I understand there is tremendous complexity for adoptees in traveling the journey of loss and grief that is adoption. But we are in this together, and sharing the loss eases the burden. Acknowledging the birth family, connecting with the birth family, speaking out about the realities that cause children to be placed for adoption: it’s time.

And that to me is one of the keys to bringing about positive change in Ethiopian adoptions, to getting ASPs to listen (and the State Department, the lawyers, Congress, and so on): that everyone’s stories are heard.

Those of us who are connected by Ethiopian adoptions have a great opportunity right now, to share a meal, to talk together, and to bring all our truths to the table. It is crowded and noisy. Good listening and excellent translators will be important. But like any raucous family meal, it can offer connection, information, communication, and the possibility for nourishment and change.

Tomorrow: Some thoughts on the responsibility adoption agencies have to the birth/first families, and how they might bring about change.

3 thoughts on “Insisting on a Place at the Table for Everyone

  1. After travelling to my Ethiopian daughters first family just a few months ago (she is 8.5 adopted at 3.5) I feel that every adoptive family should have to travel back. Although I think we are very invested in the Ethiopian community in our area there is something very special my daughter can not get at a heritage camp.

    I have never seen anyone happier than my daughters mother when we walked into her village. The connection with her Ethiopian family is so important. I find it hard to express.

    • D, I agree with you on all the points you raised — especially how difficult it is to begin to adequately express the last one.

  2. Maureen, I love your cooking.

    As you know, I agree strongly with your last point.

    Many times, in pretty much every adoption community, APs are criticized for speaking out about ethical issues with adoption once they “get their baby.” For many PAPs and APs, this has become a tired old chestnut.

    Many PAPs and APs who question why some APs speak out are failing to understand the power of relationship with first/birth families. As you have touched on, many Ethiopian adoptions allow for ongoing relationships between first/birth families and adoptive families. When an adoptive parent sees — really sees — their counterparts in Ethiopia and the incredible loss they have suffered, it is impossible to remain blind to injustices done in the name of adoption. When an adoptive parent travels to Ethiopia repeatedly and hears On Every Single Trip of specific families desperate for news of children now in Canada, it is impossible to unhear their voices.

    The voices of Ethiopian first/birth parents — and parents who might have been first/birth parents yet were able to remain just “parents” — must be present and heard for this to be a proper and constructive dialogue.

    I am going to give this much more thought. In the meantime, I raise my glass to you as you try to bring all of our family to the table.

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